The following piece appeared in the October 22, 2009 issue of the Chicago Reader. Due to a technical error which was belatedly corrected (in March 2010), the Reader omitted Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa’s name as coauthor, but I’ve restored it here. — J.R.
Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa discuss the Iranian master’s first film to screen in Chicago since 2002.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa
It’s been six years since Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and I published Abbas Kiarostami (University of Illinois Press), about Iran’s most famous and most controversial filmmaker. The book combined the perspectives of myself, an American film critic with a Jewish background, and Mehrnaz, an Iranian-American filmmaker and teacher with an Islamic background, on Kiarostami’s films, which are neither narrative features nor documentaries but something in between. Where Is the Friend’s House? (1986), Close-Up (1990), Life and Nothing More . . . (1992), Through the Olive Trees (1994), Taste of Cherry (1997), and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) keep altering the balance between what’s actually seen in a story and what’s implied or imagined, and this is part of what continues to make Kiarostami such a contested and fascinating figure. Building, perhaps, on his talent as a visual artist (he’s a photographer, painter, and graphic artist) and his interest as a chronicler of Iranian life, he’s been a nearly constant innovator in both form and subject matter.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1989). — J.R.
By far the most underrated of Sam Peckinpah’s films, this grim 1974 tale about a minor-league piano player (Warren Oates) in Mexico who sacrifices his love (Isela Vega) when he goes after a fortune as a bounty hunter is certainly one of the director’s most personal and obsessive works — even comparable in some respects to Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano in its bottomless despair and bombastic self-hatred, as well as its rather ghoulish lyricism. (Critic Tom Milne has suggestively compared the labyrinthine plot to that of a gothic novel.) Oates has perhaps never been better, and a strong secondary cast — Vega, Gig Young, Robert Webber, Kris Kristofferson, Donnie Fritts, and Emilio Fernandez — is equally effective in etching Peckinpah’s dark night of the soul. R, 112 min. (JR)
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This review in the January 31, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader provoked a fire-storm of angry letters. I was attending the Rotterdam International Film Festival while many of these were arriving, and I can recall having to write a reply to some of them from there. The main point of disputation was whether or not Lucas had in fact appended the subtitle “Episode IV: A New Hope” to Star Wars when it first premiered in 1977; I knew he hadn’t, because I vividly remember attending a first-day showing in Los Angeles (and subsequently writing about it for Sight and Sound in an essay, “The Solitary Pleasures of Star Wars,’” that was reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics) . But quite a few of my indignant readers were convinced that George Lucas in his wisdom had already foreseen that the film would be so successful that it would launch three prequels and were eager to set me straight. The Reader’s facts checkers eventually confirmed my claim by phoning Fox, and I was left musing about the chilling ease with which the Star Wars industry had seemingly managed to rewrite its own history, at least in the minds of many viewers who, having bonded with their parents and/or siblings over the blissful spectacle of mass annihilation at a later date, either weren’t there to see the premiere in 1977 or else were somehow persuaded afterwards to re-imagine what they saw.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 2007). — J.R.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut |****
Directed by Ridley Scott
It took 25 years, but the makers of Blade Runner finally got it right. Preceded by at least six editions, five of them seen by the general public, this “final cut” is the optimal form of Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece. Neither a complex revision nor a simple restoration, it’s a retooling that presents the project as it was originally conceived. Although some of the violence has been intensified and stretched out, new footage isn’t really the point. The focus instead is on redressing technical errors and making other helpful adjustments, giving the film a fully comprehensible narrative. For the first time every detail falls into place.
Along with the equally pessimistic and misanthropic A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Blade Runner sets the standard for movies about androids in the post-Metropolis era. It presents a dark view of humanity where the artificial beings known as replicants (who tragically have a lifespan of just four years) command most of our sympathy. Like A.I., its roots lie in 19th-century literature — Frankenstein in this case, The Adventures of Pinocchio in A.I. — where mankind tries to produce an ideal version of itself, which suffers endlessly as a consequence.… Read more »
I’ve seen about a dozen of the 57 features directed by the fascinating and criminally neglected Yasuzo Masumura (1924-1986), and while no two are alike in style, many are socially subversive and most skirt the edges of exploitation filmmaking. This 1965 black-and-white ‘Scope comedy is also known as Yakuza Soldier; Shintaro Katsu, star of the popular Zatoichi films, plays an amiable, earthy yakuza thug drafted into Japan’s war with Manchuria prior to World War II, during which his main companion, the story’s narrator, is an intellectual with a similarly jaundiced view of military discipline. Made a year before the even more remarkable violent antiwar film Red Angel, this film features a lot of slapping and bone crunching, all of it administered by Japanese against other Japanese; significantly, the violence involving Manchurians is ignored. The irreverent ambience at times suggests Mister Roberts, with the pertinent difference that desertion is regarded as a sane and reasonable response to a soldier’s life. I don’t know if this movie prompted a sequel or series, but the ending certainly paves the way for something along those lines. A new 35-millimeter print will be shown. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Saturday, September 25, 12:30, 773-281-4114.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1998). — J.R.
Yasuzo Masumura (1924-1986) tended to alter his visual style with every film, according to the needs of the story; this 1958 effort is a heavy-duty satire about three competing candy companies trying to outdo one another’s promotional campaigns, and its garish and ugly color photography seems just as functional and deliberate as the beautiful black and white of A False Student and Red Angel. Against a backdrop of hysterical competition and industrial espionage, a slum girl with bad teeth is discovered and transformed into a mascot for one of the candy companies by a cynical porn photographer. The film has rightly been compared to some of Frank Tashlin’s pop-culture comedies, made in Hollywood around the same time, and though it’s probably less funny than Tashlin at his best, its anger is more savage and leaves a more corrosive aftertaste; the apocalyptic ending, for that matter, is worthy of Douglas Sirk. (JR)
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My latest En movimiento column for the Spanish monthly Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, written for their January 2014 issue.
An afterthought: Since one of my recent favorites is Blue is the Warmest Color, I’ve been struck by the curious double standard that’s been operating lately within the critical community whereby “harder” pornography of various kinds involving sex and/or violence (including Spring Breakers, The Act of Killing, 12 Years a Slave, and Claire Denis’ Bastards) are getting applauded by many of the same critics who skewer the “softer” pornography of Blue is the Warmest Color. – J.R.
Am I turning into a 70-year-old grouch? Writing during the last weeks of 2013 — specifically a period of receiving screeners in the mail and rushing off to various catch-up screenings, a time when most of the ten-best lists are being compiled — I repeatedly have the sensation that many of my most sophisticated colleagues are inflating the value of several recent releases. And my problem isn’t coming up with ten films that I support but trying to figure out why so many of the high-profile favorites of others seem so overrated to me. All of these films have their virtues, but I still doubt that they can survive many of the exaggerated claims being made on their behalf.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 3, 1999). — J.R.
A shocking and controversial masterpiece, Yasuzo Masumura’s no-bullshit antiwar film tells of an army nurse (Mizoguchi discovery and Masumura regular Ayako Wakao) in the Sino-Japanese war who sexually services an amputee and falls in love with a drug-addicted surgeon. Shot in black-and-white ‘Scope, this 1966 feature can’t be recommended to the squeamish or to viewers bound to the politically correct, but neither its nuanced eroticism nor its passionate, unpredictable moral focus can be easily shaken off. Roughly contemporary with M*A*S*H (as in Altman’s film, scenes of war-front surgery provide a corollary to Vietnam), it sometimes suggests a less comic treatment of the same theme — how to preserve one’s humanity amid impossible circumstances — but its ethics are considerably more developed. This single screening of a 35-millimeter print is an encore to Facets Multimedia Center’s revelatory Masumura retrospective last year, an opportunity equal to discovering Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray, or Douglas Sirk. In some respects Red Angel is the strongest Masumura film I’ve seen, and on September 25 Facets will screen his Hoodlum Soldier (1965), which I haven’t [yet] seen; both screenings are part of an ongoing series, “The Return of the Japanese Outlaw Masters.” Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W.… Read more »
From Film Comment (May-June 1975). -– J.R.
February 28: Heathrow Airport, London. As soon as I step on the plane, TWA’s Muzak system has seen to it that I’m already back in America. Listening on the plastic earphones to blatant hypes for GOLD on two separate channels, the soundtrack of THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT on another (where “fuck” is consistently bleeped out, but “fucker” and the sound of Jeff Bridges getting kicked in the face are dutifully preserved), it becomes evident once more that America starts and stops where its money reaches, and that “going there” means following the money trail. It’s over two years since my last visit – my longest sojourn abroad, during which I’ve had to miss the splendors of Watergate and depend on such things as Michael Arlen’s excellent TV column in The New Yorker for accounts of shifts in the national psyche — but TWA tells me in its own quiet way that nothing essential has changed.
On the plane I read Pauline Kael’s pre-release rave about Altman’s NASHVILLE, and and it certainly does its job: I can’t wait to see the movie. But why does she have to embarrass everyone by comparing Altman to Joyce? It’s just about as unhelpful (and unsubstantiated) as her earlier comparisons of, say, LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS with Ulysees and THIEVES LIKE US with Faulkner, which confuse more than they clarify.… Read more »
This appeared in the March 20, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.
Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed and written by Michael Paxton
Narrated by Sharon Gless.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Mike Nichols
Written by Elaine May
With John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Adrian Lester, Kathy Bates, Billy Bob Thornton, Larry Hagman, and Maura Tierney.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Two highly partisan political movies are opening this week, a right-wing independent documentary and a left-wing Hollywood feature — though it’s not clear that the filmmakers of either would categorize their work in this way. Certainly it wouldn’t be any exaggeration to call both films the efforts of special interest groups — a movie about Bill Clinton put together by people who mainly qualify as his supporters and friends and a sincere hagiography of novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand fashioned by many of her disciples and acolytes. How far they actually carry their respective loyalties is a different matter, however. Ultimately both movies flounder as well as triumph because of their insider points of view, though not always for the same reasons.
Whenever Ayn Rand’s name comes up, I have an impulse to scoff, an impulse I think is shared by many others.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 21, 2006). — J.R.
Made at Fox on the heels of The Girl Can’t Help It, this inventive 1957 comedy by Frank Tashlin is his most avant-garde (surpassing even Son of Paleface) and probably his most political — and therefore one of his most misunderstood. Tashlin adapted a Broadway play by George Axelrod, discarding almost everything but the title, the advertising milieu, and actress Jayne Mansfield. Shot in glorious color and CinemaScope, the film stars Tony Randall as a Madison Avenue executive who recruits Mansfield to endorse his product, and it presents a thoughtful and multifaceted polemic against the success ethic (a key line: “Success will fit you like a shroud”). Like Chaplin’s A King in New York, released the same year, the movie delivers a devastating caricature of 50s America; both directors, anticipating Jean-Luc Godard’s journalistic directive that one can — and must — place everything in a film, created dystopian versions of New York in which TV and advertising (rightly perceived as synonymous) obliterate the divisions between public and private. In keeping with George S. Kaufman’s maxim that “satire is what closes on Saturday night,” Rock Hunter flopped at the box office and was disastrous for Tashlin’s career.… Read more »
From the Jewish Daily Forward, January 31, 2013. — J.R.
I’ve seen only two features written and directed by Michael Roemer — Nothing But a Man (1964) and The Plot Against Harry (made between 1966 and 1968, but released only in 1989). Either of these suffice to make him a major American filmmaker. And two other Roemer scripts I’ve read — one of which he managed to film (Pilgrim, Farewell, 1982), the other of which he hasn’t (Stone My Heart — undated, but apparently from the late 60s and/or early 70s) — show equivalent amounts of conviction, originality, density, and courage. But there’s a fair chance that you’ve never heard of him. And I think one of the reasons why could be that he’s a man who knows too much.
What do I mean by this? Partly that these films are politically incorrect (meaning that they all grapple with life while posing diverse challenges to people who think mainly in established and unexamined political and ethnic categories) and partly that in filmmaking we often confuse advertising and hustling with other kinds of talent — most obviously when it comes to the Oscars, but also when it comes to how we categorize and package various achievements.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 29, 1990). — J.R.
GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH
Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Charlie Haas
With Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, John Glover, Robert Prosky, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lee, Haviland Morris, Keye Luke, and Dick Miller.
A cautionary tale set in a Frank Capra universe, Joe Dante’s original Gremlins (1984) gives us a kindhearted, unsuccessful inventor named Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) who buys a furry little creature called Mogwai as a Christmas present for his teenage son Billy (Zach Galligan). He finds Mogwai in Chinatown, in a curio shop run by the sage Mr. Wing (Keye Luke), who doesn’t want to sell it, but Wing’s practical-minded grandson, who says they need the money, arranges the deal anyway. Peltzer is warned to follow three rules of animal maintenance: keep Mogwai out of the light, don’t get it wet, and, above all, never feed it after midnight. After Peltzer brings it home, he names the pet Gizmo, reflecting his own taste in crackpot inventions.
After Billy inadvertently breaks all three of the rules, the creature replicates into several more of its kind, which evolve in turn into sinister, malicious beasts. They multiply still further and very nearly take over the town of Kingston Falls — a dead ringer for the town of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life – but are all, with the exception of Mogwai, finally destroyed.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 26, 2006). — J.R.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 thriller about the French Resistance, finally receiving its first U.S. release, is a great film but also one of the most upsetting films I know. Melville based his story on a novel by Joseph Kessel (Belle de Jour) that was published during the occupation and is reportedly far more optimistic; in the movie a resistance leader (Lino Ventura) gradually discovers that he and his comrades must betray their own humanity for the sake of their struggle, though in the end their efforts are mainly futile. As Dave Kehr wrote, “Melville is best known for his philosophical pastiches of American gangster films (Le Samourai, Le Doulos), and some of their distinctive rhythms — aching stillness relieved by sharp flurries of action — survive here.” With Simone Signoret (in one of her best performances), Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and Serge Reggiani. In French with subtitles. 145 min.… Read more »
From the June 5, 2002 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
The Naked Spur
Directed by Anthony Mann
Written by Sam Rolfe, Harold Jack Bloom
With James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan, Ralph Meeker, and Millard Mitchell.
Man of the West
Directed by Anthony Mann
Written by Reginald Rose
With Gary Cooper, Julie London, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur O’Connell, Jack Lord, John Dehmer, Royal Dano, and Robert Wilke.
Q: What is the starting point for The Naked Spur?
A: We were in magnificent countryside — in Durango — and everything lent itself to improvisation. I never understood why almost all westerns are shot in desert landscapes! John Ford, for example, adores Monument Valley, but I know Monument Valley very well and it’s not the whole west. In fact, the desert represents only one part of the American west. I wanted to show the mountains, the waterfalls, the forested areas, the snowy summits — in short to rediscover the whole Daniel Boone atmosphere: the characters emerge more fully from such an environment. In that sense the shooting of The Naked Spur gave me some genuine satisfaction. –Anthony Mann in a 1967 interview
This seems to be landscape week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, with Abbas Kiarostami’s sublime Where Is the Friend’s House?… Read more »